A particular smell clings to New York City’s Chinatown in the summer. The aroma makes its way to Orchard Street. It inflects the eight drawings hanging at Room East. These direct cartoons depict FATEBE. FATEBE is artist Ebecho Muslimova’s alter ego. We may not know Muslimova, but FATEBE is a black line on white ground. And Fatebe is doing things (think Garbage Pail Kids). FATEBE is playing with herself; she is playing with her fat body. She stares at her face in a stream of shit. She twists her form into a mess on the potter’s wheel. She folds her flab over a wire. She flatulates out into the open. She digs up dirt with her hands. She drapes her flesh over handrails. She offers us a view of her symmetrical vagina.
But seriously, what compels us to gape at FATEBE? Why does our gaze linger so readily, so openly? These drawings thrust in front of us what we will to push aside. FATEBE taps into the drive that lures us downtown. She makes us inhale the foul stench of the moistest nights. She throws at us that which we are required to withstand: our bodies, our selves. FATEBE is a sinister feminist. She wildly grins.
Chicago Imagism: second-rate Pop from a Second City that had its moment—for about a second—too many years ago. This, of course, is all bullshit, but it is the narrative that’s been built around this Midwestern movement of painting and sculpture, which privileged interiority, eccentricity, folksiness, and craft—aspects that seemed woefully out of step with what was happening in New York and Europe during the 1960s and ’70s.
Roger Brown, one of Chicago’s finest, was an inveterate collector of things and their stories, and his catholic tastes—from carnie art to dime store kitsch, images of the apocalypse, and even Kenny Rogers—permeated his extraordinary body of work. His current outing, “Virtual Still Life,” gathers eleven objects he made during the ’90s and might be one of the loveliest shows to hit New York this summer. Here, paintings pose as theatrical backdrops for a variety of found or thrifted vessels (primarily ceramic), elegantly arranged on lacquered shelves attached to the paintings’ frames.
Think of these works as little Haim Steinbachs, sans cynicism and postmodern pedantry, exquisite in their quasi-religious displays of pattern, play, and gentle humor. Brown’s painting/shrines feel like hybrids of Charles Rennie Mackintosh wallpaper and psychedelic band posters. Some are inhabited by tiny silhouettes of people, either enamored or aghast by the luscious fields of color splayed out before them, like miniature Dorothys about to be swallowed up by their rainbows. Virtual Still Life #12: Modernistic Planter With Half A Desert Painting, 1995, is a triangular wing nut of a work that flirts shamelessly with full-on grandma decor. It is pretty, nostalgic, and beautifully made—déclassé in all the best ways.
In “Mon Ame,” 1897, an early poem celebrating his own genius, Raymond Roussel declares: “My soul is a strange machine.” It certainly produced some of the twentieth century’s most peculiar novels and plays: word-game phantasmagorias that prized fantasy over reality. Much to Roussel’s surprise, they were critical and commercial flops (he felt destined to outshine Victor Hugo). But the eccentric writer became a cult hero to the Surrealists and Dadaists, who even brawled defending his works. This sophisticated and transporting exhibition assembles a wealth of rare and previously unseen archival materials, charting Roussel’s work and those it continues to inspire.
The show opens with images of Roussel as a young boy dressed in costumes that augur his later, scandal-sparking theater productions, as well as a vitrine of early influences, including volumes by Jules Verne and the astronomer Camille Flammarion. A photograph of Roussel and the woman his mother hired as a public companion for her homosexual son hangs nearby. When the poet John Ashbery was researching Roussel, she cut herself out of the picture and sent him the half with Roussel. (Ashbery eventually reassembled the image and introduced Roussel to the US in the 1960s.) This idea of a ruptured, enigmatic record, pieced together by a passionate few devoted to Roussel, resonates throughout this scholarly show. The torn photograph is visually echoed in Joseph Cornell’s collages, which complement the ephemera, along with artworks by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Broodthaers that riff on themes including dreams, exoticism, and travel. That this gallery, with its roster of contemporary contenders, has chosen to inaugurate its New York space with such a resurrection is a telling gesture, one that feels like a foil for Roussel’s fate. Discouraged and financially ruined by his lack of acclaim, the artist killed himself in 1933 at the age of fifty-six.
It begins with a darkened room and a gleeful sheer-noise terror from a blank screen—a ghoul running its tendrils up and down musical keys, head thrown back and shredding out its wet, throaty mating call. It’s the 1990s Providence collective Forcefield, of course—audio tracks and a video dispatched straight from some utopian past. The impudence implied by the title of this exhibition of Chicago’s Hairy Who and Bay Area Funk artists, in addition to the freaks and no-goodniks of collectives Destroy All Monsters and Forcefield, is apropos. Then again, any nerves one might bring on board for this show are well ironed out by the latter’s don’t panic room.
With the mood set, amble on over to the other two galleries of paintings, sculptures, shrouds, beautified chairs, prints, drawings, zines, and a small pink plastic purse resembling a hat box for the shrunken among us. Purse Curse, 1968, is one of a few works included by Suellen Rocca, a painter associated with Hairy Who. A larger oil painting by her, Chocolate Chip Cookie, 1965, sticks an unassuming title to a work chock-full of big chip ideas and sweetly endearing imagery rendered in a palette of cocoa, lavender, and mint green. Nearby, fellow Hairy Who-er Gladys Nilsson and it-came-from–San Francisco troll Peter Saul make cartooning as strange as pure abstraction must have looked when it first debuted.
Though the works here tend to hail from the ’60s and ’70s via under-the-radar locales, early works by pivotal figures such as Mike Kelley attest to a slow-burn tension between the mainstream circulation of art objects and the fringes of artistic production and existence. Who needs the other side more?
Abigail DeVille’s Haarlem Tower of Babel, 2012, is a steel tower that has had the top lopped off. It’s in two pieces, both of them choked by rusting metals, broken branches, and bits of cloth and paper that seem to shed like snakeskin. Babel is the centerpiece of a group show curated by Jane Ursula Harris, and DeVille's motifs—assemblage, foliage, the growl of defunct technologies—seep outward like nuclear waste until each piece glows with green-grey apocalypticism. Doom registers in the punch-click of Luther Price’s Light Fracture, 2013, an old-school slide projector casting images of smashed insects and bubbling paints on the wall, and each slide change marking time slowly, methodically. Foreboding, too, is Julie Schenkelberg’s Hearsay, 2013, a booth composed of bashed doors and household objects that slumps in the corner like a battered fort—home, destroyed.
So perhaps what’s being worked out here is how to shove the question of environmental collapse into the dainty vase of Art. Miniatures and models abound, like Christain Holstad’s Flotsam, 2012-2013, a fabric and metal work that reproduces, in microscopic scale, the vast island of trash floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. But for all the fantasy and bricolage, the works that seem boldest, the most regal in their mourning even as they traffic in chaos and dread, are LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The shots are a grid of perpendiculars, buildings propped up like stage sets but still settling into dust. Braddock is a steel town that was swallowed by the Rust Belt, and these photographs, less “contemporary” than current, sum up the show’s sensibility: they’re about memory and relics and ruin, and yet they carry with them a portent, some chilling prophecy of a future of pitted landscapes and empty space.
“I’m gonna unwrap Reality Bites, and I’m gonna watch it,” Eileen Maxson announces in a video currently on view at the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York. The statement follows a careful recitation of the 1994 film’s cast, characters, and overarching premise as well as an appraisal of the current price for an unwatched, shrink-wrapped VHS copy—$21—one of which Maxson is shown covetously unwrapping for the duration of the piece. Its plastic sheath gleams against a ’90s-informercial-blue backdrop as she slowly rotates the tape, forcing the viewer to scrutinize the container of the film to which the entire show is devoted.
Reality Bites aspired to map the territory of Generation X, steering four recent college graduates through jejune Houston and their respective swamps of disenchantment. They’re bogged down by unforgiving bosses, conservative parents, and—worst of all—working at the Gap. Maxson dedicates her videos, sculptures, and images to the film’s best one-liner cries of ironic detachment. Janeane Garofalo’s character laughingly remarks that “Evian” is “naive” backwards; Maxson hires workers from around the world to photograph themselves holding a banner that reads either of the two words, and she prints the images on a thirteen-foot scroll of receipt paper. In a nearby half-hour-long video, the artist prompts scores of women to define the word irony, in a re-creation of Winona Ryder’s iconic ordeal.
Nothing kills a joke quite like repeating it, and Maxson cleverly plays upon Reality Bites’s strained affect of coolness by bestowing it with the studied zeal of a teenage fan. The film yearned to cultivate a metanarrative that could escape the materialistic dead end of mainstream ’90s culture, and Maxson is adept at playing upon the contradiction of its own manufactured discontent. Does the VHS tape she clasps in her hands hold the power to conjure generational ennui? Her subjects don’t have to explain irony; she has already shown us for them.
James “Son Ford” Thomas began making skulls at the age of ten with the intent to scare his grandfather. Not amused, Thomas’s grandfather cried out when he encountered the first memento mori, ordering Thomas to get rid of the clay likeness. Not deterred, Thomas tied a string to his grandparents’ bedsprings, ran it through a crack in the wall, and tugged at it during the night—assuming the posture of a true prankster. He wanted to “shake ’em up.”
Thomas recounts this anecdote in documentary footage presented in his first major institutional presentation, “The Devil and His Blues.” In a succession of rooms that organize works by their figurative content, birds, caskets, busts, and dioramas join Thomas’s skulls. Working with unfired clay found in the earth of his native Mississippi, Thomas made facial features from resonant materials: an untitled, undated likeness of George Washington has cotton hair and marbles for eyes, and an untitled skull from 1989 features aluminum foil eye sockets and teeth made of pebbles. These small sculptures (few exceed ten inches in any dimension) upset expectations: the skulls were often made for humdrum use—as pencil holders, ashtrayswhile the placid birds obliquely reference a prohibition that prevented African Americans from hunting meat-rich quail.
Thomas is widely known as a Delta blues musician, and he also worked as a sharecropper and a gravedigger. Presentations of Thomas’s work are bound to explore the reverberations of these occupations, but this exhibition wisely avoids leaning heavily on mythic backstory. Idiosyncratic as Thomas can seem, he stakes out a generous foothold in the jumble of experiences, preoccupations, and passions that make up the textures of American life.
Ruth Root’s Untitled, 2014–15, is a slightly larger-than-life, irregularly shaped canvas, which at seven feet high both relates to and dwarfs the average viewer. Big Top–like striped diagonals at the base and then flotsam and jetsam patternmaking at the top define its shape, which is primarily a parallelogram intersecting a rectangle. Suspended by grommets, the painting reveals sections of the gallery wall particularly when small textile rectangles nestle into a larger identical section of fabric. Never quite aligning, the collage of shapes affirms an intrinsic disjointed structure. Defying the anthropomorphism of sculpture, the illusionism of painting, and the object-hood of similarly scaled Minimalist outputs, its imbalance reinforces a tentative relationship to the body.
Root designs her textiles capturing a repetitive mode of patternmaking evocative of the mass-produced and ubiquitous. Multitudinous sources for her patterns can be noted: 1940s feed sack dresses, candy wrappers, 1980s Memphis furniture that has been flattened out against the wall. Familiar and yet also abstruse patterns pervade: Is that a golf ball floating beside a triangular yellow and orange sun?
Untitled is one of many unnamed works, all exceedingly flat explorations of color, line, and printed patterns. Because of the assymmetry of her canvases, Root is commonly compared to Frank Stella; however, here and in her earlier work, she echoes the lesser-known output of Leo Valledor. In contradistinction with both of these artists, she joins her painted sections to wallpaper-like selections of fabrics. The segmentation between paint and fabric is pronounced, but both areas carry all-over ornamentation. Remarkably, with pattern rather than volume, Root wittily explores the possibility of painting’s integration in and detachment from architecture, resulting in an alluringly capacious scopic field for the viewer.
Laurie Simmons recalled encountering a trove of unfinished work in Sarah Charlesworth’s studio shortly after her death: “There was more green than I had ever seen in one art project . . . and that was how Sarah left us, with this beautiful—the green of springtime, the green of promise, and the idea that things weren’t ending, that there was a new beginning.” That verdant sense of imagination suffuses “Doubleworld,” Charlesworth’s first major survey in this city, and quite unlikely her last. Immersing oneself in more than forty years of this artist’s strange and searching eye, one is witness to a dexterous mind that could combine the seductiveness of the photographic surface and space with an inexorably Conceptualist rigor.
Elegantly and quite frequently, Charlesworth used photomontage as an illusion-breaking device to interrogate the junkyard of overlapping imagery and meanings within the histories of art, photography, and popular culture, culminating in tableaux that could look like hybrids of outdoor advertising, fashion spreads, and National Geographic. One sees this most pointedly in Gold, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983–88, which reads like a flowchart of conspicuous consumption throughout history, a survey of this precious metal’s various incarnations and perversions, from pre-Columbian death masks and medieval tchotchkes to 1980s designer wristwatches and a gold lamé swimsuit.
But the didacticism of a lot of these dyed-in-the-wool Pictures-era works utterly melts away when we come to later series such as “0+1,” 2000, and “Available Light,” 2012, spacious and metaphysical bodies of work that are studies in the colors blue and white as luminous, palpably physical experiences. Make no mistake—these aren’t sentimental, late-in-life studio dalliances. Charlesworth’s meticulousness, even ruthlessness, as a thinker and maker is in high gear throughout these images. After all, unrepentant beauty is rarely for the weak of heart.
The marble Buddha laughs benevolently, luxuriating, on one side. His follower, a worried-looking marble snowman, stares back. He seems to be realizing that he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell at this whole enlightenment thing. Artist Peter Regli cleverly comments on metamorphosis through more than fifty small groups of these knee-high characters. Watching the deities serenely teach their lumpy, half-melted little acolytes is highly amusing—they make such unlikely pairs. Yet, the snowmen become relatable stand-ins for us humans, desperately seeking wisdom and meaning before it’s too late. To tackle the transience of life with so much humor isn’t easy, and Regli’s results are oddly moving.
Regli, who refers to this and other projects as “reality hacking,” gave photographs of Buddha tchotchkes, snowmen, and toys to marble carvers in Da Nang, Vietnam, who fabricated the sculptures. Before this commission, the craftsmen only produced a few traditional Buddha types for temples. And they had never seen snow. By introducing this foreign subject matter, Regli seems to be hacking their reality as well as the visual expectations of his viewers. That the statues are all carved in marble highlights their formal similarities—balls of snow echoing bald heads and round bellies—at the same time that it places them in conversation with classical Western sculpture, the slumping snowmen providing comic foils for the idealized bodies of ancient Greece. Their kinship extends beyond medium, though. All sculptures, Regli seems to point out, spring from a common human need to create characters in our own image. From eternal gods on altars to snowmen in suburban backyards, we grapple with time through sculpture, watching some weather the centuries while others slip away with the seasons.
Titled after Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” this exhibition draws on cybernetics in order to explore both utopic and dystopic systemic themes in art. Most acute, Brenna Murphy’s labyrinthine digital renderings of light and space seem to crystallize Brautigan’s vision of a “cybernetic meadow,” where idle humans are nurtured and sheltered in a technocratic paradise. The halcyon days of computer-science technologies that Brautigan envisions are difficult to imagine. Moreover, familiarity with his satiric writing leads one to believe that the poem is tongue-and-cheek in revealing the dark edges of a techno-utopia: surveillance and communication control.
Drawing out a long history of cybernetic fantasy, the earliest work on view also harks back to the late 1960s. Paul Laffoley’s The World Self, 1967, a diagrammatic pink-hued painting, resembles the tightly controlled aesthetics of system painting of the 1960s but lacks the rigor of actual scientific inquiry. Through its lack of cohesive meaning, it manages to operate in what Robert Smithson saw as the evasiveness of systems in art. Additionally, Lee Mullican’s methodic abstractions, here from the 1970s, attest to his experiments in a fictive-science abstraction from as early as the 1950s.
In our current self-assured technophilia, we imagine digital technology as a more objective approach to classification, which can resulting in less systemic prevarication. See Michael Portnoy's Kalochromes seemingly faithful bitmapped screen-prints of kale, which camouflage an encrypted image of a future trend-setting vegetable. Because the images deny the viewer full visual access, they also hamper full assimilation of information. Themes of systemic failure and distortion are carried through in Shannon Ebner’s black-and-white photographs of a poem, as she translates words into form, data, in a style reminiscent of the dot-matrix printer. Iman Issa’s information-based and unreliable reconstructions of canonical works of art remind us that systemic production has countless trajectories, which continuously engage in regression, actualization, dissolution, and recomposition within the same works. Conceptually rigorous and visually arresting, the exhibition, like the poem, manages to convey the enchantment and unease of our cybernetic universe.
“The People of Town N,” the title of Nikolay Bakharev’s second solo exhibition at this gallery, refers to Novokuznetsk, the artist’s hometown in southwestern Siberia, where he’s managed to capture an assortment of its denizens in various stages of unguardedness or vulnerability for more than thirty years.
Novokuznetsk is a mill city—steel, iron—and the hardness of its environs can be read on the faces and bodies of Bakharev’s subjects. Though most of the pictures were taken after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Bakharev’s people seem, at least from the perspective of Western eyes, to be trapped in the amber of impoverished, Communist-era aesthetics—outdoors or in their cramped apartments, in seventies hair styles and secondhand polyester swimsuits, with a few black market–looking American records or magazines lying about.
But the joy of Bakharev’s work is in his depictions of eroticism and camaraderie. See friends and strangers lying about in the woods in (Relationship #8, 1986-90) or smiling and getting drunk together in (Relationship #105, 2001), or various men and women (mostly women) posing in next to nothing or nude, exultant in their bodies in these moments of sweet, seditionary exhibitionism (it was forbidden to show or even take pictures of naked bodies during Russia’s Soviet years). Like so many documentary photographs, Bakharev’s work is unyielding in its moles-and-all frankness, but his touch is unequivocally tender—a chronicler of a great and immersive love among so many ruins.
Three works in David Maljkovic’s current show share the title Out of Projection: Two ink-jet-on-aluminum collages, both 2009/2014, and an HD video, 2009–14, depict retired Peugeot workers at a test track, milling around prototypes that look at once flamboyantly futuristic and hopelessly outdated. These works are set against wallpaper that reproduces a sparse view of Maljkovic’s 2014 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, whose interior is similar enough to Metro Pictures’s that the skewed black-and-white floor-to-ceiling images are mildly disorienting. More than producing a simple vertiginous effect, the installation poses questions with wider purchase: What happens when an artist’s work moves from institution to gallery? What is the purpose of literally transposing new works (for Maljkovic, this descriptor seems perpetually uncertain) onto past exhibitions?
Compounding this ambiguous status of artworks and documentation, a slide presentation titled In Low Resolution, 2014, shows images from the artist’s archive with some areas reduced to blocks of oversize pixels. It’s reminiscent of the televised censoring of nude bodies, a process of obfuscation that also tantalizes. Among the eighty slides are images of the Peugeot prototypes, along with production cars bearing indecipherable interventions. A hatchback has what appear to be round gray blocks adjacent to its wheels, but the indeterminacy of the rendering makes it difficult to distinguish impediment from improvement. It’s a compelling analogy for Maljkovic’s process-based critique of memory and historical narrative, in which the refusal to come to a conclusion is both an acutely political choice and a significant source of vitality.
Regarded for his role as a painter, teacher, and critic, Andrew Forge created a visual language with the aim of reconciling perception and representation. In this latest presentation of his work, featuring nineteen paintings dating from the 1990s up to his death in 2002, the dotted and dashed compositions create a sensory Morse code capable of captivating viewers. These images reverberate with hints of fleetingly identifiable forms and employ a great variety of brushstrokes exploring the emotive possibilities of shape and color built from small, simple forms.
An untitled yellow-and-green watercolor from 1996 invites the viewer to swim, wade, or climb through the individual sensory units that compose the work. The eye follows a suggested diagonal divide created by earthy green dots integrated across the painting. The overlap and variability of each shape allows the fragments to read as an organic whole of unknown depth.
Downstairs, the oil-on-canvas painting April, 1991–92, displays a dynamic combination of colored dots, layered and arranged to create vague suggestions of form along with splotches of descriptive color, translating the sensory impressions of a late April day into a large-scale composition. In this piece, as throughout his work, Forge sought to address a particular query he expressed in a 1975 piece for Artforum: “What does any attribute of the outside world mean—what makes it worth commenting upon or isolating or trying to recreate on any level?” This examination of isolation is evoked by the individual, energetic elements that coalesce to form each painting.
The subtitle of the Tom of Finland exhibition currently at Artists Space, “The Pleasure of Play,” points to a key aspect of the artist’s work: its fundamental cheerfulness. Tom, who admired the work of Paul Cadmus and Norman Rockwell alike, gave his homoerotic drawings of well-muscled men in uniform (and in various states of undress) a subtly wholesome bent. He once vowed, “My men were going to be proud and happy men.” His young bucks’ cocks are mammoth, but often their good-natured grins are bigger. The highly repressive decades during which Tom’s work developed could not stem his innate sex-positivity.
This two-part exhibition, the largest to date in the US (where he first became known in the mid-1950s through his drawings for the Los Angeles quarterly Physique Pictorial), features nearly two hundred drawings, hung loosely by medium and theme rather than chronology, and an even greater number of reference collages—mass-media clippings arranged by type that helped guide the prominent cleft chins and flared-thigh jodhpurs that defined Tom’s hypermasculine ideal. Early gouaches from the mid-1940s feature urbane rakes whose illicit behavior is only occasionally explicit; but soon thereafter, Tom provided close-up views of every possible combination of orifice and appendage, as modeled by bikers, sailors, loggers, and cowboys. A standout in the main exhibition is a twenty-part 1977 series starring Tom’s recurring leather-daddy character, Kake, whose cruising instigates an orgy that grows one by one with a stream of onlookers turned joiners. It’s remarkable, not least because Tom rendered the profusion of compound convexities—nipples, biceps, asses, abs—in the unforgiving cross-hatching of pen and ink. His skill in graphite is no less extraordinary: Portraits made in the ’80s seem lit from within, all oiled skin and gleaming leather. But it’s a surreal intergalactic image that endures, providing a suitable analogy for Tom’s global effect on gay culture. In it, a brawny, mustachioed Scandinavian penetrates planet Earth in smiling ecstasy.
As suggested in the exhibition’s title, “After Midnight: Indian Modernism to Contemporary India, 1947/1997” launches a conversation between two discrete time periods. Curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the presentation begins with paintings from the era following India’s independence from Britain, primarily by those involved in the seminal Progressive Artists’ Group that jumpstarted modernism in India. These artists’ interest in diverse media beyond painting—output that is rarely exhibited—is worth noting. See F. N. Souza, who used diluted printer’s ink and magazine paper to create what he dubbed “chemical paintings” in 1969, and Tyeb Mehta, who produced the sixteen-minute black-and-white film Koodal (“Meeting Place”) in 1970.
Two standout contemporary artworks that marry material experimentation with social commentary are Asim Waqif’s By-Construction and Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice, (both 2003). Exploring art-world consumption, the former is an ingeniously built sprawling structure composed entirely of trash generated by the exhibition itself, such as shipping crates. The latter is inspired by the inaugural speech of the newly formed and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Kallat transcribed each letter of the address with rubber adhesive that he then set aflame. Given that the work was constructed a year after the sectarian riots in Gujarat, the charred letters and the buckling of the mirror from the heat powerfully suggest that Nehru’s wishes for India were unfulfilled. Overall, the highlighting of experimentation with materials throughout the exhibition prevents the show from being weighed down by context—a chronic problem for display of “Indian” art —while not eschewing it either.
History does not remember Marjorie Strider as well as it should. Tom Wesselmann, Mel Ramos, and Roy Lichtenstein were all contemporaries of hers in the 1960s, and there was a great deal of overlap in all their subject matter: Crayon-colored Pop representations of the female form. But what Strider didn’t do, which her dudely confreres did, was to subject her women to the burnishing effects of male Eros. Even the most embittered of Roy’s girls always wanted Brad back, pretty-perfect in crisp lines, red lips, tears, and distress. Strider wasn’t big on this form of boy’s-club fantasy and gaze—her ill-at-ease, uninviting ladies would rather see Brad’s head on a fucking pike.
This gorgeous miniretrospective of Strider’s works from 1958 to ’74—drawings, collages, sculptures, and bas-relief sculpture/paintings—are abrasive reconfigurations of midcentury American “femaleness,” subtly roiling in their formal discomfiture and attitude, a kind of voluptuousness threateningly rendered in a manner that evokes tumors. Only one of the artist’s famously bumper-boobed women is on display—Come Hither, 1963—a Liz Taylor doppelgänger in black and white with a rictus and slightly crossed eyes. But Strider’s caustic take on feminine softness and desirability comes across just as vividly in her still lifes, where “domestic” objects stand in for irritated female bodies, as in Untitled (Graters) and Untitled (Shakers), both 1973–74, a series of homely cheese graters and spice shakers oozing Lynda Benglis–style blobs of rotted-out, Play Doh–looking guts.
Green Horizontal (Jolly), 1964, looks like a prop out of an old Green Giant commercial, where, perhaps, a happy housewife pointed winningly to its pair of misshapen 3-D lima beans, ready to plop out of their pod. Are they dead ovaries? Or maybe even a sad sack of balls? They are all of the above, surely—and a funny, withering rejoinder to the pro-bro stylings of first-generation Pop.
If the Internet has come to bolster geographically dispersed tendencies and social groupings in the world of contemporary art, the price it has levied for this connectivity and acceleration has been the triumph of the image as the dominant vessel of influence. In their New York debut, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel present a precise body of sculpture that lays siege to that dominance in the Beaux Arts townhouse where the gallery recently reopened. In this buildingonce owned by nineteenth-century merchant and art collector Cornelius Bliss and on the same walls where his daughter would hang works by Picasso and ModiglianiDewar and Gicquel have installed two strangely proportioned, handmade wool tapestries. When we see the works, they appear as hugely oversized wool sweaters. Too large to be donned, the truth of the lush, richly woven works rests in the volume of space they inhabit with their pliable contours and organic texture. In this sense, they challenge us to subjugate vision to a material presence that refuses to be subsumed by it. What better material than wool, the fiber of both resilience and warmth, could be pitted against the indifference of imagistic conditioning that would reduce a six-foot-tall tapestry to a piece of clothing?
The other works in the exhibition stalk a similar vector of attack: Hand-carved earthenware sculptures approximate a toilet and a wash basin set with such exacting detail that they seem they could be functionally deployed given the right plumbing. Their organic patinas of muddied green dance away from ideas of the readymade with which a viewer might meet them. The pitcher accompanying the basin provides a more elusive movement: Standing on a large foot, it evokes some unspecified near past. Its empty form tempts a figurative reading, but the work’s straight-faced rendering is an end only to itself. There are no molds or reproductions after all, but only a way for the artists to continue working.
Countering Richard Serra’s famous Verb List of 1967–68, Anne Wilson’s To Weave, to Wind, to Knot, to Twist, to Push, to Pack, to Press, 2010—a light box of tools used for “women’s work” and reconfigured in glass—stresses the action embedded in this exhibition’s title. “Pathmakers” assembles more than one hundred objects by forty-two artists in a broad survey of historical and current practice. The show is divided into two floors: The “midcentury” galleries open with a cluster of Ruth Asawa’s dangling wire sculptures, ca. 1950–72, dramatically lit so that their shadows appear like the transparent fabric tapestries in their company. A floor below, “today” is anchored by projects from 2014: Michelle Grabner’s bright paper weavings and enamel paintings, and Polly Apfelbaum’s exuberant marker-on-silk pendants.
Curators Jennifer Scanlan and Ezra Shales have chosen nine lesser-known figures for longer explanatory labels, including Alice Kagawa Parrott. Her unisex Hanten Jacket, ca. 1960, was a favorite of artists such as Agnes Martin, whose own version is on display. (I would have loved to see some connection to Gabriel Ann Maher’s Garment and accompanying video _Design, both 2014, which explore the role of gender in how we dress.) One emergent theme is the shaping of space. Textile pioneer Dorothy Liebes’s subtly luminous Room Divider for United Nations Delegates Dining Room, ca. 1952, finds its contemporary parallel in Hella Jongerius’s Knots & Beads Curtain for UN Delegates Lounge, ca. 2012. Like Eva Zeisel’s whimsical Belly Button Room Divider, 1957, Jongerius’s curtain carves our environment and filters how we see it.
If certain historical and geographic contexts go unexplored—with everything from showerheads to gravy boats on hand, how could they not?—“Pathmakers” charts a postwar trajectory for women artists that includes corporate collaborations and individual experimentation, without hierarchy of genre. The show celebrates making as discovery. There’s no better illustration than Zeisel, whose work we surprisingly encounter again on the contemporary floor: In 2008, at the age of 102, she decided to try her hand at lighting.
If you saw the Whitney’s recent cycle of permanent collection shows uptown, notably Carter Foster’s “Real/Surreal” and Donna de Salvo and Scott Rothkopf’s “Sinister Pop,” you’ll be well primed for the shrewd, unpretentious, and often winningly provincial exhibition that inaugurates the museum’s on-the-money new home. The show’s early galleries think past boundaries of media—Imogen Cunningham’s double-exposed portrait of Martha Graham hangs next to a Charles Burchfield sunburst—and of race and gender, most persuasively via the juxtaposition of a blah abstract totem by Robert Laurent with a better 1931 bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an artist of the New Negro Movement. Folk artists such as James Castle and Bill Traylor complicate the progressive modernist story, though sadly not the postwar one.
“America Is Hard to See” succeeds most by looking askance at American claims to cultural advancement, whether in Woodrow Wilson’s time or Mark Zuckerberg’s. America’s theft of the idea of modern art in the late 1940s is scrutinized rather than celebrated; it takes guts to make your anchor painting a Hedda Sterne. Minimal developments in the 1960s get blown away by informel collages and assemblages—hands down the best room in the show, juxtaposing Jack Smith’s groovy short film Scotch Tape, 1959–62, with menacing works by Lee Bontecou and Bruce Conner and an eerie painting of a bat by the underrated Los Angeles mystic Cameron. Eventually the sting of the late 1960s (in Peter Saul’s churning Saigon, 1967, or Faith Ringgold’s collage Women Free Angela, 1971) and the anger of the first AIDS years gives way to the Hellenistic nonchalance of the present. But any complacency in the Whitney’s last galleries should be countermanded by the views they afford: to the Piketty-validating glass towers arising in west Chelsea and to a Hudson River that, within our lifetimes, will rise high enough to regularly flood the neighborhood.
There is the problem of eyelashes. The six unnerving photographs that Laurie Simmons displays here feature interchangeable models against perky colored backgrounds: vapid, prosaic images from a fashion world where Vogue is no longer distinct from twelve-year-olds’ makeup lessons on YouTube. But the eyelashes: Overpainted on the upper lid, much too thick on the lower one. It takes a few seconds to notice—compliments to the dexterity of this maker’s hand—that the models’ eyes are actually clamped shut, and irises and pupils have been painted over their lids. What gives the game away are the lashes—the lower lashes are in fact upper lashes: monstrous, spidery antennae, markers of an enduring but diseased humanity on bodies that makeup and Photoshop have otherwise scrubbed of biology.
In The Land of Green Plums, 1994, the Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller writes of the body as a pell-mell cluster of organs, any one of which could betray the others. “If you control your face, it slips into your voice,” she writes. “If you manage to keep a grip on your face and your voice, as if they were dead wood, it will slip out through your fingers.” Like Müller, Simmons employs the techniques of Surrealism not as a dated language for internal fantasy, but to express the very real effects of external pressures on the body, the psyche, that thing we used to call the soul. There’s no point going inward, these images say; even your imagination has been spoiled, and the dream you dream with your eyes closed tight belongs, if we’re honest, to the international conglomerate that sold you the mascara. Put on a brave face for the camera, but the body cannot withstand the onslaught; keep the pain behind your eyelids, and it will slip out through your lashes.